January 1, 2001

Meeting The Moviegoer

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 3:30 pm

In 1977, I returned from my junior year at college and hurried to the funeral of my Great Aunt Bolling, I fell in with other latecomers behind the casket being wheeled down the aisle of the church. A distinguished gentleman was in front of me. He turned, caught my eye and nodded hello. He seemed somehow familiar. At the burial, my father introduced me to him: “Meet your cousin, Walker Percy.”
I had heard Walker’s name spoken with reverence just a few months earlier by fellow English students at the University of Virginia. During literary sessions at my fraternity, passages from his novels had been read out loud, alongside excerpts from William Faulkner. But I had not yet joined the ranks of his devotees. I wasn’t even aware we were cousins. It turned out we were related by marriage, through the very woman whose funeral we were attending. But in the South, even this tenuous a relationship is enough to call someone “cousin” – and to ask a favor.
Hearing I wanted to be a newspaperman, he set up an interview for me with his famous hometown newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi. I landed the job at the paper and the next day began my lifelong interest in Walker’s writings by spending a Saturday with him and his family at their home in Covington, Louisiana.
That fall, I vowed to read all of Walker’s novels and went to the college bookstore and ordered first editions. His second, third and fourth books were easy to locate. I purchased them for less than $10 each. But the store manager advised me not to buy the first edition of his prize-winning first novel, “The Moviegoer,” because sellers were asking $50. Today, it sells for $2,000.
At the time, both the price and the premise of the book seemed just out of my reach. I had committed my college years to enjoying every moment because I knew the experience was a short one. I reveled in all I saw and everyone I met. I was on a search for meaning every moment I was there.
Life beyond college had no roadmap or defining limits. And for a creative type like me, finding meaning in the drudgery of the everyday was a daunting challenge – the same one that haunts this perplexing book’s narrator, Binx Bolling – named perhaps for our relative.
Every few years, when I would feel lost in a holding pattern of despair, I’d pull this novel off the shelf to remember that the mere act of searching for more meaning in life makes it worth it.
When Walker autographed my first editions, I promised I would return with a first edition of “The Moviegoer” and thank him for helping me start my career as a newspaperman. But I moved, changed jobs, married, had children and life became all too ordinary in its busyness.
One day, after a pre-dawn business meeting in Buckhead, I picked up the morning paper. Walker’s obituary was on the front page.
I was crushed. I had allowed myself to be swallowed by the everyday. That morning, as I trudged into an office building with thousands of other seemingly uninspired employees, I vowed to do better. I promised I would begin a search for a more meaningful job, that I would find a way to thank Walker publicly and that eventually I would find that autographed first edition of The Moviegoer to complete my collection. That final search, at least, continues to this day.

November 1, 2000

Tagging Along

Filed under: Atlanta,Family,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

A few years ago, after my children and I completed an inspiring tour of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., we were returning to our prime parking spot right outside the building when my daughter noticed that my license tag was gone. I was mad. Here we were learning about our sophisticated law enforcement while at that very moment, a major crime went unnoticed.

My son, having been duly impressed by the G-Men on the tour, suggested I report it to the FBI. The security desk radioed upstairs and soon we were leading three or four federal agents down the steps of the J. Edgar Hoover building toward our car.

“This section of the street is considered federal property,” one G-Man was telling us. “If they stole it from here, then you’ll have the full authority of the FBI behind you.”

My anger at being a victim suddenly turned to delight as I envisioned some poor unsuspecting dude surrounded by a dozen G-Men yelling: “FBI – Freeze! Give us that Georgia tag back.”

When we walked up to my car, one of the men started shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “But you are parked 20 feet outside our jurisdiction. We’ll have to call in the D.C. Police on this one. If you had just parked a few spaces down, we could have helped you.”

Nearly 45 minutes later a cop pulled up, took a few notes before his radio cackled with reports of an armed robbery at a nearby Wendy’s.”

He scribbled something on a scrap piece of paper and handed it to me. “I’ve got to run. Here’s your incident report number. I’ll write up your incident in a few days and you can request a copy.”

Back in Atlanta, I went to the county tag office, but they refused me a new one, demanding to see my police report. Calls to the D.C. police found my incident number had not been turned in yet.

As I stared into my computer screen at work, I searched for a solution. I then did what any good designer would do: I designed my own exact replacement, replete with year and month, the county name and even positioned the state peach behind my number. Then in a burst of honesty, instead of merely typing the state name at the top, I wrote: “Tag Stolen from Georgia.” My coworkers were impressed. So, it seemed, were the police.

Soon, I was being pulled over all over town. Policemen would walk up to my window, scratch their heads and inevitably begin with, “Sir, where in the world did you get that tag?”

“I designed it myself, on my computer,” I would say.

I would then tell my story about taking my kids to visit the FBI and how the G-Men had to call the D.C. policeman, who was called to an armed robbery … yada, yada.

Some would cut me off with a roll of their eyes and wave me on while others expressed great admiration for my handiwork. One asked about my computer software, and how I scanned the peach. Once I was pulled over twice on the same night on Piedmont Road.

Realizing I was spending more and more time on the side of the road meeting Atlanta’s finest, I located one clerk in the D.C. police department who took sympathy on my sudden popularity. She promised to harass the original cop until he got his paperwork in. When that proved fruitless, she typed the report herself and faxed it to me.

Within hours, I was fastening on a new – albeit more boring – state tag on my car. I haven’t seen any blue lights in my mirror since. Next time I go to D.C., I’ll know to park directly in front of the FBI.

September 1, 2000

The Boys from Atlanta

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

My friends and I usually caravan to the New Orleans Jazz Festival every spring, but one year, my friend Tommy Calk and I were unable to clear a long weekend. T.C., a pediatrician, studied this emergency and quickly prescribed a solution: “We need to make a surgical strike.”

As part of the tradition, our friend Charles Driebe was in charge of accommodations. Each year, he would meet and woo a New Orleans woman, maintain a relationship with her at least long enough for T.C. and me to come crash in her apartment, and then find another for the next year after she inevitably grew tired of us and threw the three of us out in the street. This particular year, Charles had secured excellent accommodations: His girlfriend’s apartment was within walking distance of the festival.

Another important ritual involved the first night in town. We would have a dozen oysters, soft-shell crabs and beer at the Acme Oyster House, followed by a performance by the famous local musical family, the Neville Brothers.

This Friday night found T.C. and me dashing by taxi from the airport to Acme and then dropping off our bags at Charles’ base camp. We were unable to hail a taxi to the concert at the coliseum uptown, so we stopped a bus, asked the driver how to get there and he waved us on board. A few blocks later, he flashed his lights at a bus at an intersection and told us to run catch it. We were then deposited at the auditorium front door.

But tragedy struck: We found the ticket booth closed and doors to the auditorium locked. We could hear a warm-up band playing, so we banged on doors until an employee appeared.

“We need a ticket to the concert, but the booth is closed,” we pleaded.

“We’re all sold out,” she said dryly, closing the door.

“But, but, you don’t understand. We drove all the way from Atlanta just to see the Neville Brothers.”

She looked skeptically at us, said “Wait a minute,” and closed the door.

T.C. and I stood there wondering if our luck had run out. Minutes raced by. We were about to bang on the door again when it suddenly flew open and a very authoritative man looked at us and yelled, “Are you the boys from Atlanta who drove down to see the Nevilles?”

“Yes,” we said nervously.

Then he smiled, gave us an envelope and said, “Here. Two of the best seats in the house – on me.”

T.C. and I tried to contain our glee. We raced inside, grabbed a beer and ran to our seats near the stage. Just as we sat down, the lights lowered and the Nevilles were announced. It was as if they were waiting for the boys from Atlanta to take our seats.

After the show, we walked outside to the taxi stand, but we had to get in a line of people perhaps 50 yards long – all waiting for taxis, which were nowhere in sight.

Suddenly, a man walked up to the line and yelled, “Anybody need a ride into town?” T.C. and I took a nano-second to run up and volunteer.

As we enjoyed our quiet ride home, through the streets of New Orleans, we giggled as we recounted our luck. The driver asked if we had tickets to see the sold-out Allman Brothers show at the same auditorium the next night. “No,” we said and then discussed our prospects of banging on the doors and saying, “We drove all the way from Atlanta just to see the Allman Brothers!”

June 1, 2000

The Doctor Was In

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Starting a newspaper can be an exciting enterprise. It’s even possible for the whole process to go to your head. Fortunately for me, since I spent my youth here, I get lots of chances to maintain my humility.

A couple of years ago, my mother was hosting a Fourth of July barbecue for some old family acquaintances. She asked me to stop by, say hello to her friends and maybe help out in the kitchen. When I walked out on her deck, a number of folks asked about the paper. Some were going on and on about how they love the stories about restaurants or who their favorite columnist was, etc. I, of course, was taking it all in, enjoying all of the praise and being of very little help in the kitchen.

Then one nice old gent I did not recognize chimed in. “I remember you from when you were a little boy,” he began. “We lived next to each other in the Palais Apartments.”

The Palais Apartments used to be perched on the hill on Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta between WSB-TV and The Temple, overlooking the intersection of Spring Street. With the current craze in moving back to Midtown, these old Tudor architecture, two-story residences would be a gem – had they survived. Alas, they were torn down more than 10 years ago and the vacant hill was just recently graced with yet another glass office building.

The former neighbor was continuing his story, with others beginning to listen in.

“I’ll never forget the time I was reading the paper one Sunday afternoon, sitting in our living room next to an open window. Right below the window were some bushes and, apparently, you and a little girl were hiding in there. You were about three years old and I think she was four or five. Anyway, she was telling you to pull down your pants and then she would pull down hers. You were not going along with her.”

As he’s telling this story, I’m wondering where in the world this was going. I had no recollection of this early visit to “the doctor’s office” and here I was quickly becoming the focus of this late afternoon picnic. I was also wondering, why was he sitting there listening to all of this and not doing anything about it, but I was too shocked to say anything.

“So you must have pulled down your pants, because then she said she was going to pull hers down for you to see. Then next thing I heard was you protesting that you didn’t see anything and for her to pull her pants down again. Then I heard you say, ‘Hey, tThat’s not fair, you don’t have anything to show.’”

Everyone on the deck was having a nice laugh at my expense. I vaguely remember making mud pancakes with this older chick, but I didn’t recall this early medical research. I was beginning to turn several shades of red – all for an incident for which I have no recall. My mother, upon hearing the story, remembered the girl as being the granddaughter of a nearby neighbor.

“I thought it was inappropriate for them to let that child to play with you. She was much too aggressive for you!” my mom concluded.

I’ve always tried to keep my dating life private and now my very first interaction with the opposite sex was the subject of late-afternoon gossip. Soon others came out to the porch and wanted to know what was so funny. I figured that was the perfect time for me to go help out in the kitchen.

April 1, 2000

A City Boy in Full

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

The call came through one Wednesday afternoon. If I was interested, the man was saying, I could jump on a private plane Saturday afternoon and join other media types flying to Albany, Ga., to stay in a storied old plantation and go “hunt’n.”

Gillionville3

“Did you ever read ‘A Man in Full’ by Tom Wolfe?” he asked.

“Well, sure,” I told him. “In fact, I read it while traveling in Cuba.”

“I hear there’s some real fine fish’n down there.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. I had spent a week in Cuba and never once thought about a fish, except for those that showed up broiled on a plate next to some black beans and rice.

“Well,” he continued, “this is gonna be ‘A Man in Full’ weekend – horses, wagons, dogs, the whole thing. Got yourself a gun?”

Well, I did inherit my dad’s shotgun, the very shotgun he had taken on hunting trips when I was a child. I had waited for him to take me with him, but those exotic occasions seemed reserved for his college buddies. I had read all of Faulkner’s hunting stories, preparing myself for the moment I would have to look down the sights of a two-barrel at a wild animal and I wondered if I could really ever pull the trigger. I’d never had the opportunity to find out, especially since I’d once been married to a life-long vegetarian who wasn’t sure she’d stay married to me if I did.

Gillionville

Once at Gillionville, one of the most famous of the now-famous quail plantations, we were led out to a field, given a gun and began blasting away at some clay pigeons shot from an automatic skeet launcher.
The gun felt good under my arm. I loved the sound when I pulled the trigger and the gun exploded, followed by the obliteration of the plastic projectile. Then, there followed that primordial sound that magically transforms a city boy into a real man: the guttural sounds of other hunters congratulating me on my good aim. I breathed deeply and stood tall. I confidently cracked open the gun and ejected those shells and inhaled that intoxicating combination of metal, oil and gunpowder.

That night, after a grand dinner, all us manly men retired to the fireplace and drank glasses of port and smoked cigars. Then, it began. The stories. Hunt’n stories from Montana, fish’n stories from Alaska – each one grander than the last. “Ohmygod,” I thought. “I forgot to pack any stories.”

Gillionville2

I drank heavily from the port, trying to summon some suitable tale. When I was a child I found some crawdads in our creek, one block west of Peachtree. My brothers and I once unsuccessfully shot a pellet gun at squirrels in tall pine trees because they threw pine cones at us while we threw the football.

I began to shift uncomfortably in my chair, fearing my city-boy nature would be unmasked. I could feel the sweat popping out on my forehead. Finally, the plantation manager said he had to get up early to wake the dogs, so he’d better mosey off for some shuteye. Others followed and I was saved.

The next morning we rose early, had a huge hunt-country breakfast and I rode a horse for three hours, carefully absorbing each and every detail of my successful hunt so next time I could lean back by the fire, take a pull on my cigar and tell the story of the time I went to Gillionville …

November 4, 1999

A World of Difference

Filed under: Life Stories,Spirituality — schroder @ 8:04 pm

Two Decembers ago, I stepped off a plane in Vienna, Austria, on what turned out to be St. Nicholas Day. Last December I arrived in Santiago, Cuba, in time for the Festival of San Lazaro. Two higher-contrast examples of how we humans celebrate the holidays might be difficult to find on this earth. Yet in some ways they were so similar.

Vienna is all old-world charm. Nestled next to the Alps, its winters are all gray skies and snow. The people are an odd blend of Germanic rigidity and Eastern European culture. Beautiful cathedrals and palaces and family-run goulash houses. Coffeehouses where locals linger for three hours in deep conversation.

There may not be another city of this size that takes Christmas so seriously. The downtown has many streets closed to cars and in their place are hundreds of trees, wreaths and crèches. Stores seemed to compete for festive decor. Long after the stores were closed, the downtown pedestrian-only streets were crowded with neighbors walking and socializing. Neighborhood squares around town had individual fairs, with children performing in costume and artists displaying their work. And throughout the city, the most popular stops were countless booths serving a warm wine concoction called gluvine. Family members of all ages drank the traditional potion from festive ceramic mugs as they tried to stay warm in the evening wind. The alcohol ignited a minor buzz that seemed to tie the entire city together into one large family with a collective electric current.

Crossing the island of Cuba in December was a sub-tropical contrast. Thirty years of isolation and a government ban on religion have tried to smother what was once an island of deeply Catholic people into a spiritual desert. There are no nativity scenes, Santas, or reindeer and the only Christmas trees are strangely tucked into the corner of lobbies of hotels into which only foreign tourists are allowed. Until the pope visited in 1997, any recognition of Christmas was outlawed.

But on the Festival of San Lazaro, even Castro and his guards couldn’t stamp out a spiritual expression that is as basic to mankind’s needs as food and water and companionship. Groups gather in selected homes for a 24-hour spiritual holiday called a bembe, disguised as a family party. The collective theme is Santeria, a cleverly hidden hybrid of Christianity, African Yoruban icons and voodoo.

These people who have so little material goods are quick to invite even American tourists off the street to share in their chanting, dancing, drinking and worship around an altar of food, holy water and artifacts. Percussionists or even old tape players keep the beat going around the clock.

One man who was the local butcher invited us back that evening for a family feast for which he was cooking a cabrito, or goat. When we arrived, he led us into a small living room totally encircled with people of a variety of ages and colors. “This,” he said to us in Spanish with his arms outstretched toward the whole circle, “– this is all my family. You are my family, too!” After he had ensured all had plenty to eat and drink, he and his wife took plates full of food to neighbors unable to leave their homes.

Although these two cultures were outwardly worlds apart, they shared the same sense of family and desire to celebrate the season. I like to think as I celebrate the holidays this year with my own family, I can incorporate both the pageantry of Vienna and the passion of Cuba.

September 4, 1999

Glenda the Mailwoman

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Last month I prepared for my annual two-week vacation with my kids. As always, I wrote a note to my friend Glenda and left it in my mailbox. Glenda is my postal delivery person. The day I left, I opened my mailbox and pulled out a nice note from Glenda. She confirmed the dates she would re-deliver the mail and told me to have a great vacation, and punctuated it with her trademark signature and happy face.

These days I love the post office, but it wasn’t always that way.

When I first met the previous owners of my house seven years ago, they walked me around the yard explaining all the quirky things about the place. One of the more endearing aspects was their relationship with their mailman. There was no mailbox at the house, so most days, he would walk up the 39 steps of the driveway and leave the mail on top of an old milk jug, carefully placing a sea shell on top of it so it wouldn’t blow away. If it looked like rain, he would continue up the remaining 13 steps and slip the mail inside the screen porch.

I moved in the house on a Monday and happily walked up my driveway and stopped at the milk jug: no mail. I continued up to the screen porch and discovered a letter from my postman hanging from my door knob. It said he was invoking a post office regulation requiring the installation of a street-side mailbox.

Figuring I had a grace period, I came home the next day expecting to see a pile of mail. There was none. I called the post office, but they offered no help. After 10 days of no mail, I gave in and erected a mailbox. There was still no mail. I was furious. I had to sign a form to release all the mail.

To get back at my postman, I often parked directly in front of my mailbox so he would have to get out of his truck to drop the mail in. Pay backs are hell.

A couple of years later, I started this company. I keep close tabs on the delivery of our newspapers. I’ve monitored when my papers arrive at the local post office and then called a network of neighbors to track the wave of delivery. I’ve driven around the neighborhood, flagged down a postman and asked why he hadn’t delivered my papers yet when his associates had done so days earlier.

Then the post office assigned Glenda to my route. I detected the difference immediately. She delivered my paper early and wrote a note alerting me that she was delivering my papers to her route that day and including a schedule of when her associates would finish delivering theirs. Some days, I might only get one magazine or an advertising flier in my mailbox. But Glenda will spruce it up, writing “No bills today!” on my label. She always includes a happy face.

Sometimes when our printing schedule results in a late delivery to the post office, I would take boxes of doughnuts to the local distribution facility for the postal workers’ 9 a.m. break. (No, it wasn’t a bribe – there is a postal regulation against that.) I would include a letter thanking the nice delivery people for their outstanding work. Glenda will write a thank-you note the next day.

I always wave when I see Glenda making the rounds in the neighborhood. She has a wonderful smile and a happy thought to share. She says she enjoys reading our newspaper. I hope she reads this page. Thanks, Glenda (and all your fellow postal professionals), for all you do.

May 1, 1999

Nun the Wiser

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

When I went to grade school at Christ the King School on Peachtree Road many of the classes were taught by Catholic nuns. Most of the nuns ruled by terror and we, the saintly little grade school boys and girls, lived in mortal fear much of the time.

Nuns were intimidating to us just by what they wore: military style shoes, heavy stockings, undergarments that went all the way to the ground and must have been at least three or four layers thick, even in summer.
These were covered by several more layers of clothes, topped by a cape-like garment that draped over their shoulders and down around their waists. Their heads were covered with a habit, made of black cloth.

They looked like one of the aliens on Star Trek.

We wagered it probably took them about two hours to get dressed every morning.

One of our favorite tricks was to ask nuns what time it was. It usually took them about five minutes to find their watches.

Every afternoon we had our favorite activity: show and tell. Kids read articles from the paper or brought in unusual items from home. One time I brought in my new pet hamster. It was a beautiful thing: all white with pink ears and beady little eyes. It loved to crawl all over me and I loved the feeling of its little nails tickling my arms or my neck.

At show and tell, everyone had to play with it. One of the girls suggested that Sister Mary Sean, our teacher, pick it up. With some reluctance, she let me to place it carefully on her hand. She laughed as it tickled her palm.

Then that hamster ran right up Sister’s arm and underneath one of those hundreds of layers of fabric she wore. I froze and looked at Sister. Her eyebrows launched up and her eyes got as big as billiard balls and she froze too. Then, she started grabbing her shoulder, and her chest and her stomach. She started hooting and hollering and running around the front of the classroom like folks did in those charismatic churches.

All the girls acted very concerned and gasped in horror. Several rushed to Sister’s rescue, but they couldn’t find that hamster anywhere. Suddenly, Sister went screaming out the door and down the hallway toward the bathroom, followed by all of the girls in the class.

There was bedlam in the class. All the boys were on the floor laughing and screaming. Then, the parade of girls started back and the boys all jumped back into our seats. As each girl walked in the door, she would look at me with her best Catholic-girl scowl. I felt as if a jury was reentering the courtroom to sentence me to death. One whispered that they had to take every bit of clothing off of Sister before they found the hamster in her bra.

Finally, Sister walked back in and marched over to me and asked me to open the box I had brought the hamster in. She opened up her hands and dropped the hamster back in the box. She told me to never bring an animal to show and tell again.

Then her eyes locked on me just before she went back to the front of the room. I’m not quite sure to this day, but I think I saw a little smile break out across her face and just a bit of a twinkle in her eyes.
That afternoon, all the boys in the school wanted to see my hamster. After all, he had “boldly gone” where no man had gone before.

March 4, 1999

Forgiving Our Heroes

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Spirituality — schroder @ 12:00 pm

It must be hard to be a hero. Maybe we ask too much of them. Just the other day I was reading about one in particular.

He was a leader at the height of his glory. Saw a woman one day. Desired her. Did the wrong thing. Denied it. Got caught. Suffered public and private embarrassment. Was faced with losing his lofty position. Suffered tremendous consequences.

Sound familiar? It could be Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, or even King David – the Old Testament author of so many beautiful psalms. Or for a more parochial example, Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons on the eve of our city’s only Super Bowl.

How could they be so stupid, we ask? How could they risk so much for such a momentary fleeting indulgence? We feel betrayed, angry, depressed, lose respect for them and interest in the other things they stand for that once meant so much to us.

But I am partly to blame for the severity of these downfalls. Perhaps you are too.

I get caught up the fervor. I am at first attracted to these people for their brilliant professional skills. I expect them to be brilliant in all areas of their lives. But, alas, they are only men. They screw up just like me, and maybe even you. But because they are who they are, their mistakes are magnified to Herculean proportions. I immediately pass a harsh judgment on them.

I try to remember the lesson of the married woman in the Biblical story who was caught in an adulterous situation. She was hauled before a huge crowd in her town. The crowd wanted Jesus to confirm the traditional Jewish law and demanded that he order an immediate death sentence. Turning the mirror back on the crowd, he said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Then I think about an even harder challenge: forgiveness. Jesus predicted one of his apostles would betray him to the soldiers, resulting in his crucifixion. He knew it would be Judas Iscariot and possibly knew it the moment he asked Judas to join his band of 12. Yet Jesus showed up at the Last Supper anyway. Perhaps he even forgave Judas before the betrayal had taken place.

Then I’m faced with so many questions. Should we have known that our presidents would not stand up to moral scrutiny? Is the very pedestal we thrust these men on too high for mere mortals? Is the international adulation and heavy responsibility we heap on their shoulders too heavy for their souls? Does the intensity of our need to look up to them squeeze out the darkness that otherwise lurks in the corners of their minds? In their most private moments, are they shamed by their realization that they are, after all, only men, that while capable of great good, also succumb to temptation?

Perhaps we should reverse the cycle. Maybe we should forgive these heroes before their betrayal. Next time a leader takes a turn at the top, we could expect mistakes. When our sports icons are preparing for the big game, we could wager which one will be weak at the worst moment.

The rise and fall of men, just like civilizations, is a consistent theme in our history and our literature. Why not anticipate it? Our disappointment and sense of betrayal will be lessened. Our judgment will be less harsh. And if we don’t thrust such undue pressure on our heroes, maybe they will perform better in the roles they have been selected to play.

September 4, 1998

Second Chances

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

You don’t get many second chances in life. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to learn the lessons and be ready should similar circumstances reappear.

At lunch with Susan Weltner Yow, an longtime friend a few months ago, I asked about her husband. He was in the doghouse for having let Mother’s Day pass without getting her a present. Having missed a few such occasions myself, I suggested to her something I have sometimes wished for: a second chance.

That afternoon she forgave her husband and proposed a “do-over”: She would pretend the following Sunday was Mother’s Day. Later that night I got a message from him. “Thanks, buddy,” he said with a touch of hyperbole. “You saved my marriage.”

This summer, I attended a 90th birthday party for someone who once gave me a “do-over.” Dr. William Pressly spent a lifetime nurturing a private school in Atlanta called Westminster into a reality, despite several early crises in which he nearly closed the doors for lack of funding. Today it has a showcase campus with a reputation and an endowment that rivals the finest prep schools in New England.

I attended his school in seventh and eighth grade and following my family tradition, left for boarding school in ninth grade. There, I fell in with a tough crowd and flirted with all kinds of trouble. Midway through my junior year, my family urged me to go see Dr. Pressly and ask to return to Westminster.

I didn’t present an impressive case. My grades were mixed and, in the style of the day, my hair reached down to my shoulder blades. As I sat in his office, he looked me over and, despite some hesitation, agreed to roll the dice. It was the break I needed. Returning to Atlanta and Westminster, I had a surge of energy and appreciation for both. I made lifelong friends, joined several groups – and found my life’s work when I signed up as a reporter and then an editor for the school newspaper.

My debut, however, was an ignoble one. With little training and less direction, I was given an assignment to write the lead story and an accompanying editorial about Dr. Pressly’s retirement after 22 years as the school’s founder and only president. On deadline, my editor gave me what he thought was a press release on Dr. Pressly’s life and said I could run all or part of it. It ran with little alteration – under my byline. Much to my embarrassment, we learned upon publication that what I had been given was a draft of an article prepared by the school’s development director for the alumni magazine. I learned a hard lesson about being careful about your sources – and about plagiarism.

My debut as an editorialist was even less gracious. I took on the style of the rebellious journalism of the day and wrote that our school was fine under Dr. Pressly’s leadership, but would profit from new direction under a different president. Despite the insults, Dr. and Mrs. Pressly were gracious to my family at graduation, saying nothing when the subject of the newspaper came up in polite conversation.

Years later, seeing the Presslys again after all these years, I realized that most people will honor them for their extraordinary contributions to the institution that flourishes today in Buckhead. But I will remember much more: a lifelong commitment to taking chances on some marginal students and to maintaining a level of charm, graciousness and polish that is rare in today’s world – and a willingness to provide me with my own “do-over” nearly 25 years later:

Thank you.

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